Willem (William) of Nassau was born at Dillenburg Castle in Germany, one of the family seats of the Nassau family. At the age of eleven he inherited a large amount of land and other property from his cousin René of Chalon. This included the Principality of Orange in the south of France, and so the title ‘prince of Orange’ (‘Oranje’ in Dutch) was appended to the Nassau family name. Emperor Charles V – who governed amongst other countries, the Netherlands – stipulated that Willem, a Protestant, would have to convert to Catholicism in order to inherit, and would be raised at Charles V’s court.
In 1559 Charles V’s son Philip II appointed Willem stadtholder (the monarch’s deputy) in Holland, Zeeland and Utrecht. In the years that followed, the people of the Netherlands grew increasingly dissatisfied with the regime of Philip II, the King of Spain, who was a strict Catholic, and in 1568 the uprising started. By this time, Willem had returned to the Protestant faith. He became one of the leaders of the Dutch Revolt, which is why he later became known as the ‘Father of the Fatherland’. In 1572 he became stadtholder on behalf of most of the provinces of what later became the Republic of the Seven United Netherlands.
In response to Willem’s role during the Revolt, Philip II declared him an outlaw, and offered a huge reward to whoever would kill him. Willem was shot and killed by Balthasar Gerards in Delft in 1584.
Willem married four times and had twelve children who survived to adulthood.
Did you know? The title ‘stadtholder’ has nothing to do with a ‘stadt’, the Dutch word for ‘town’. It comes from the German word ‘statt’ (‘instead of’), reflecting the stadtholder’s original role as the deputy of the reigning monarch. William of Orange was initially the deputy of the Spanish king, Philip II. Later he became stadtholder on behalf of most of the provinces of the Republic of the Seven United Netherlands.